You know that nightmare? The one where you haven’t gone to a single class all semester, but find yourself sitting in the final, panicking because you have no idea how to answer any of the questions? It is a classic stress dream. Along the lines of showing up at school in your underwear or, for preachers, not being able to find your sermon text amid reams and reams of paper in the pulpit. We know dreams to be the subconscious working things out sideways, but there is usually a bit of truth, even in a nightmare like the first example, from which we learn the deep truth that ignorance isn’t always bliss. We learn the same thing in our rather pointed Gospel lesson for Sunday. Since last Sunday, when we last heard Jesus predict his death and resurrection, a few things have happened to Jesus and his disciples that the Lectionary skips over, all of which are based in misunderstanding.
First, Jesus ends his teaching about what it means to call him the Messiah by telling his disciples that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” This promise is nothing to sneeze at, and it will be the source of consternation and confusion for the early church through the entirety of its first generation. How do we handle the reality that people are dying and the kingdom of God is not fully inaugurated? We will have to save that for another post, when/if the Lectionary decides to include 9:1.
Next, and more importantly, comes the Transfiguration, which in Mark’s Gospel includes the detail that Peter’s suggestion that they build some houses is based on the fact that he was terrified and didn’t know what to say. Finally, as Peter, James, John, and Jesus come down the mountain, they find the rest of the disciples scratching their heads over a boy who is possessed by a demon that they could not cast out. A rather lengthy story, given Mark’s aversion to details, this passage shows us that nobody, as of yet, really understands what this traveling Rabbi, miracle worker, and, hopefully, Messiah, was really about. “Why couldn’t we cast the demon out?” the disciples as Jesus. “Because you have no idea how this stuff really works,” Jesus intimates in his reply.
Which brings us finally to Jesus predicting his death and resurrection for a second time. Mark flat out tells us that the disciples did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask. The Greek word that is translated at “did not understand,” carries with it the implication that not only did the disciples not get it, but it is likely that they lacked the capacity to ever get it. This becomes abundantly clear when the disciples next action is to argue over which one of them was greatest. Jesus just told us that the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the greatest human being to ever live, was gong to be betrayed and killed, and their response is to try to figure out who will be there to take his place? No, this sort of ignorance is not bliss. This ignorance is totally missing the point of who Jesus was and what he came to do. This ignorance is Calvin flying blissfully down the hill in his wagon, ignorant of the likely painful ending to his ride.
It strikes me that many who claim to follow Jesus in 21st century America are suffering from the same sort of ignorance – following Jesus assuming it brings with it some sort of major award at the end, rather than the truth that Jesus exemplified in his life, that the kingdom of God is where the first are last and the last are first. Following Jesus isn’t about securing celestial fire insurance or making your country greater than all the rest or about safety, comfort, or security. Following Jesus is, as we heard last week, about denying yourself and taking up your cross. Following Jesus is about laying down your life – literally and figuratively – for the sake of the other. Following Jesus is about embracing vulnerability and trusting fully in God. To misunderstand this reality is to fundamentally miss the point.